A Journey of Discovery — Book Two: Pledge

Summary: Luke and Mara continue their up-and-down relationship in this sequel to A Journey of Discovery — Book One: Pendulum.

Disclaimer: All these wonderful characters belong to George Lucas. No Imperial or Republic credits are being made off this story.

Author's Note: Many thanks to all my wonderful, 'anonymous,' betas (you know who you are) for their words of encouragement and invaluable suggestions.

And many thanks to everyone who posted reviews for the ending of Pendulum. I hope you enjoy part two of the trilogy. For those who haven't read part one, it can be found by clicking on my screen name, and following the link.

Chapter One

"Oh, that feels good! Don't stop!"

Han Solo leaned his head around to give his beloved a quick kiss, though his fingers continued massaging her tense shoulders. "I hope you repeat those sentiments later tonight, Your Worship," he quipped.

Leia Organa slumped a little lower in her straight-backed office chair and gave a tired sigh. "If I can stay awake that long."

"Are you saying my charms aren't enough to keep you awake? I'm wounded." Han paused long enough to cross his hands over his heart in mock indignation.

"I said, don't stop," Leia scolded, rolling her neck wearily.

"Yes, ma'am." Han hurried to resume his ministrations, frowning as he caught sight of a gold reflection shuffling through the outer office's doorway.

"Go away, Goldenrod," he directed sternly. "Can't you see Her Highnessness is on a rest break?"

"Han, leave him alone." Leia raised one hand, motioning to the protocol droid that it was safe to enter. "What is it, Threepio?"

"Forgive me for interrupting, Mistress Leia," the eternally jittery droid began, "but Mon Mothma wishes to make certain you've informed Master Luke of the victory celebration tomorrow evening."

Leia gave a low groan. "Not yet, but I'll track him down this afternoon."

"Very good, Mistress. I shall inform her immediately."

"So Luke doesn't know about the big shindig yet?" Han continued his role as masseur, grateful that Threepio had enough sense to exit quickly.

"No, he's been out on patrol since yesterday."

"If he's smart, he'll stay there," Han mumbled, wishing he could get out of attending the gala himself.

Instead of issuing the expected admonishment, Leia rose and stretched, turning to watch the passing Coruscant traffic outside her office window. "I can't say I disagree," she murmured. "These past two months since the Emperor's defeat have been hard on him. And I'm afraid he's not going to like what Mon Mothma has planned."

"These past months have been rough on you and him both," Han pointed out.

"Hmmm. I never realized resurrecting the Republic government would be so tiring."

"You know that's not what I'm talking about," Han chided. When he didn't receive a reply, he walked over to the window also. "Leia... You and he need to work this out."

"There's nothing to work out," Leia countered, though her tone was unconvincing. "We've made it known we're siblings, and our father had been a Jedi. That should be enough."

"I'm not trying to take his side. But I see that look he gets whenever Vader's name is mentioned. One of these days he's going to blurt something out — something you may not like." He wrapped one arm around her slim shoulders. "I just think the two of you need to come to an agreement on how much more to reveal, and soon. There's bound to be someone in the galaxy who knows Vader's real name, besides the three of us."

"Four," Leia corrected. "Don't forget, Mara knows, too."

"Ah, yes. The mysterious Miss Jade." Han gave a not-very-subtle smirk. "Well, I can't see her getting chummy enough with anyone to be telling your little family secrets. How's she fitting in over at the Rogues, anyway?"

"Apparently she reports directly to the commander," Leia snorted, exaggeratedly emphasizing her brother's title, "and interacts as little as possible with everyone else."

"Gives a lot of private, late-night, supply reports, I'll wager," Han said with a snicker.

Leia laughed. "You always know a safe bet when you see one, don't you?" She circled back to her desk. "Well, General, one of us needs to get back to work."

"What do you mean, one of us? I'll have you know I took time out from a very busy schedule just to come over here and give out free massages to beautiful women."

"Too bad you have to hurry back and finish those repairs on the Falcon, and won't be able to accommodate any of those other women."

"Yeah, a real shame," Han drawled with a sly wink.

"When is that supply run you and Chewie volunteered for?"

"Day after tomorrow," he replied, already regretting that he couldn't push it up a day, to avoid the dreaded festivities.

"I miss you already," Leia cooed jokingly, as she pushed him toward the door.

"Give me these next two nights, and I'll do my best to supply you with some wonderful memories to tide you over," Han sent back.

"Out, now, or I'll be here working all night."

"Okay, okay." With one last parting kiss, Han was gone, and Leia surrendered herself to tackling the ever-present workload piled on her desk.

Later that same afternoon, Leia approached Rogue Squadron headquarters with some trepidation. Though she knew this was the most likely place to find her brother, having been informed his patrol had just landed a short time earlier, she also knew it was more than likely that she would not find him alone. Her eyes confirmed what her meager Force sense told her as she looked down into the hanger bay from the second-story walkway. Still in his orange flightsuit, Luke's blond head nodded in apparent agreement with whatever comment his companion had just made. And that companion, of course, was Mara Jade.

Leia didn't know quite what to make of Mara Jade. Luke maintained that she was a court dancer, and had attributed Mara's fighting prowess during the foursome's flight from the palace to surreptitious combat training she'd been forced to undergo after the Emperor had recognized the potential of her latent Force abilities. Under questioning by Mon Mothma, the redhead claimed it was that same potential which had made her a virtual prisoner of Palpatine. She contended that her overwhelming fear of exploitation by the Emperor had motivated her to seek out and aid Jedi Skywalker as a means of expediting her own escape from the despot's clutches.

Mara Jade was a loner, aloof and fiercely independent. It hadn't escaped both Han and Leia's notice that the only person she acknowledged as a friend, and, most likely, the only reason she hadn't taken off long ago, were one and the same – Luke.

Mara and Luke would spend hours together, investigating previously hidden chambers in the Imperial Palace, exploring the wonders of the immense city, and working side-by-side on his X-wing. Leia wondered what kind of strings Luke had to pull to allow Mara this much access to the military base.

And yet, Leia thought, she'd never really seen them do more than touch hands. They'd smile at each other – well, Luke would smile. Mara's closest facial expression could only be categorized as a smirk. They'd laugh quietly to themselves, sharing some joke or anecdote that only they were privy to. And they'd frequently engage in heated arguments that rivaled hers and Han's.

For the hundredth time, Leia wondered just what kind of relationship Luke actually had with the red-haired spitfire. Just after Palpatine's and Vader's deaths, Mara had strongly insinuated that she and Luke were engaged in a torrid sexual liaison, and Luke hadn't exactly denied it. But since then, they had both been very close-mouthed about what had gone on between them during Luke's incarceration and their subsequent escape. Despite Han and Lando's incessant ribbing, Luke would only acknowledge that Mara was his friend, nothing more. Luke Skywalker and Mara Jade were the most private people imaginable, and they seemed determined to remain that way.

One thing that Luke and Mara did openly discuss doing together, though, was practicing using the Force — levitating objects, performing acrobatic impossibilities, lightsaber sparring, trading knowledge of skills only they could perform. Leia would feel a twinge of jealousy at times. She couldn't really blame Luke. He had gone out of his way to persuade her to train in the ways of the Force, but there was always something else she needed to do first, some meeting to attend, some diplomatic function to see to. She wondered if she would ever find the time. Or if, subconsciously, she was afraid that utilizing the Force would be tantamount to acknowledging her relationship to Vader.

Leia shook off the thought. Now was not the time. Now, she had 'something else to do first.'

Luke looked up as Leia approached, having felt her presence as soon as she neared the hanger. "Hello, Leia," he greeted her warmly, kissing her on the cheek.

"Hello, Luke," Leia returned, then glanced at the redhead. "Mara."

"Your Highness," Mara responded, in her usual emotionless voice.

Leia had told Mara on numerous occasions she needn't address her so formally, but the woman seemed to do it on purpose. And not in the joking way Han still did.

"So, Leia, what are you doing down here?" Luke asked. "Finally decide to sign up to be a Rogue?"

Leia shook her head, laughing lightly. "There's going to be a victory gala tomorrow evening and I wanted to make sure you'll be there. Eighteen-hundred, The Capital Hotel ballroom, full dress uniform."

Luke started to object, but the look on Leia's face changed his mind.

"All right," he relented. "We'll be there."

"Luke, I'm afraid you don't understand," Leia said, certain that he understood perfectly. "It's by invitation only."

"And I'm not invited." Mara leaned back against the X-wing's landing strut, arms crossed.

"Well, to be frank, Mara,..." Leia began.

"An invitation means it can be declined," Luke interrupted, "so I decline to attend."

"You can't," Leia objected, momentarily caught off guard by the abrupt reversal of his previous consent. Her brother usually didn't hesitate to acquiesce to any request she made.

"Of course I can."

"Luke, you're one of the guests of honor. You have to be there."

Leia was preparing to have to argue further when Mara unexpectedly reached over and touched Luke's arm, addressing him softly. "Luke, don't be childish. Go. I don't mind. I wouldn't even want to be there, and have to rub elbows with those snobby politicians." She glanced over at the diminutive brunette. "No offense, Leia."

Luke sighed in resignation. "It's just – they should acknowledge your part in the Emperor's defeat, not shun you."

"That would only cause them to scrutinize—" Mara stopped suddenly, with the barest hint of a glance toward Leia. "I prefer to stay in the shadows."

Leia found herself doubting more and more Mara's explanation of her Imperial ties. But for now, she wasn't going to knock her good fortune of actually having the redhead on her side for once. She looked at her brother in hopeful expectation. Luke was in one of his rare temperamental moods. And, as odd as it was, it seemed the only person who could soothe his ruffled feathers was the person with the fieriest temper Leia had ever seen.

"Go," Mara whispered once more to the Jedi.

Luke finally nodded, giving the two women a half-hearted smile. "Never had a chance, did I?" he murmured.

Leia started to thank Mara for her intervention and understanding, but the mysterious woman only gave her a cool stare, then turned back to her work.

Leia gave Luke a goodbye peck on his cheek. "I'll see you later. And thanks, Luke."

"Sure," Luke replied soberly, before also turning to wipe some grime off his battle-worn fighter.

The next evening, Luke arrived at the celebration exactly at eighteen-hundred, not a moment sooner. His dress uniform was immaculate, with the creases pressed sharply, his rank insignia attached to his collar, and several medals gleaming on his chest. He gave polite nods as he moved through the crowd, where the political and social elite mingled with the heroes of the recent war. Giving Leia his customary kiss on the cheek and Han a handshake, Luke quietly took his seat at their table.

After dinner, the festivities continued with testimonials from representatives of several worlds liberated by The Alliance to Restore the Republic, or 'New Republic,' as the fledgling government was now referred to. Mon Mothma extolled the bravery of the military forces, including those who had given their lives in the successful struggle to remove Palpatine's dark influence from the galaxy.

Medals were distributed to Wedge, Lando, and crew, for destroying the second Death Star. Tributes were awarded Han, Leia, Chewbacca, and their strike team for bringing down the shield generator.

Mon Mothma returned to the podium, holding up a hand for silence. "Our last award of the evening goes to the man responsible for destroying our greatest enemies, Emperor Palpatine and his dark lord, Darth Vader."

Leia glanced at Luke, dreading to see the scowl she knew would fill his face. What she saw instead was even more chilling. His visage bore no semblance of expression – only a cold vacant stare.

"Gentlebeings, I present to you our very own Jedi Knight, Commander Luke Skywalker. Commander?" Mon Mothma waited while Luke rose to his feet and walked up onto the stage, completely ignoring the thunderous applause filling the room. He stood at perfect attention while the leader of the Rebellion pinned this latest accolade on the front of his uniform. Luke saluted her, Admiral Ackbar, and the other top brass assembled onstage, then exited down the steps with a crisp stride.

Luke took his seat, having not uttered a single word during the entire ceremony. Leia started to say something when Han laid a hand on her arm. "Leave him be," he whispered. "This is hard enough on him."

"That doesn't give him the right to be rude," she whispered back. Han shook his head, eliciting a glare from her. She wouldn't cause a scene now, but she'd sure give her brother a piece of her mind later.

An orchestra began playing just then, signaling the final portion of the evening. Han rose and offered his elbow to the still-fuming light of his life. When they returned to their seats after dancing, Luke was gone.

When the door announcer chimed at Mara Jade's small apartment, she knew who it was even before opening the door. Luke stood there, his very posture illuminating the dejection she could feel flowing from him.

"Celebration over already?"

"It is for me," he growled sullenly.

"Well, come in." She ushered him toward a worn couch, one of the few pieces of furniture in the room. "Would you like a drink?" she offered. "You look like you could use one."

Luke hesitated a moment, then shook his head. "No, thanks." He leaned his head back on the couch as Mara curled herself into a seat at the opposite end. "I'm afraid I'm not very good company," he muttered, staring at the ceiling. "I shouldn't have come here."

"You know you're always welcome," she assured him.

Luke rose and wandered to the window, staring out at the city's endless lights. "They gave me a medal, Mara," he bit out suddenly. "They gave me a damn medal for killing my own father." He reached up and yanked the decoration off his jacket, throwing it down in frustration.

Mara quickly crossed the room, rubbing his shoulders in understanding. "Luke..." she soothed.

Luke stiffened slightly at her touch, but didn't shrug her off. She moved around in front of him, gazing up into his sorrowful azure eyes.

"They think I killed Darth Vader, Mara, and they thanked me for it."

It was at that point that Mara Jade, former assassin and Emperor's Hand, did something she had never before done. She hugged another being in genuine sympathy. It seemed the most natural thing in the galaxy as they fell into each other's arms. Luke's strong shoulders heaved, racked by tearless sobs. Mara embraced him tightly as he buried his face in her silky hair.

They couldn't say how long they stood there, one drawing strength from the other. Eventually, Luke composed himself enough to draw back slightly. "I'm sorry," he said softly.

She took his hand, leading him back to the couch. Not letting go, she sat close to him, tucking her legs under her.

"Luke, you have nothing to be sorry for. You were hurting. I'm glad you chose to come here. Isn't that what best friends are for? That is... I mean... friends..."

Luke shook his head to interrupt her. "You were right the first time." His gaze bore into her sparkling emerald eyes. "You are my best friend, Mara."

"But... Leia, Han..."

Luke shifted slightly to his side, laying his head against the back of the couch. "Leia's my sister, and I love her dearly. But she's busy setting up the new government, and she has Han now. And Han,... well... he'll always be a good friend, but Chewie is his best friend, and now," Luke reflected softly, "now, he has Leia. Besides, even though he finally has to admit the Force exists, I think he still considers it a hokey religion."

Mara smiled at him in silence, understanding his need to just talk.

"And Wedge, and my other friends in the Rogues, they accept me, until something comes along to remind them I'm a Jedi. They don't say anything, but I can tell I make them uncomfortable when I use the Force." He shifted his gaze back to Mara's face. "But you, you're different. You take me at face value. You know what it feels like to have the Force flowing through you, to be different from everyone else." He absently clasped her hands in both of his, stroking her fingers as he talked. "You understand me, Mara. Sometimes, I think, better than I understand myself."

Mara stared at their joined hands as his strong fingers continued to caress hers. "I should be the one thanking you, Luke. You're the only person who trusts me, who knows my background and doesn't shun me because of it, who accepts me exactly the way I am. If it weren't for you... if I hadn't gotten to know you..." Mara took a deep breath. "I may have died defending the Emperor, or be on the run, a bitter, angry, fugitive. Who knows, I might even be seeking revenge on you for killing my master."

She laughed lightly. "Palpatine always cackled on about knowing the future. I don't think he foresaw us being together like this," she intertwined her fingers with his, "or he never would have pushed me into that cell with you."

"Or that whirlpool tub," Luke put in with a wink, causing them both to chuckle. He stroked the backs of her hands, then her palms. "You have soft hands," he murmured.

Mara jerked as his last words startled her. "Hey, I'm trying to have a meaningful conversation here, and you're getting fresh."

Luke dropped her hands like they were hot coals, his face reddening immediately. "Sorry."

Mara laughed out loud. "I was teasing," she said, playfully shaking his arm. "Or at least, I thought I was." She rose gracefully from the couch. "As you're the only one I've ever attempted it with, I must not be doing it right."

"Feel free to practice on me all you want," Luke said with a chuckle, his embarrassment dissipating.

"Now, I'm going to go change clothes," Mara announced.

"Change clothes?"

"Tonight's the night for celebrations, isn't it?" She leaned over and poked his nose with her fingertip. "I'm taking you out to celebrate."

"Huh?" He looked at her warily, not sure if she was still practicing 'teasing' or not.

"To celebrate our now-confirmed status as best friends," she went on, noting the confused look on his face. She waved toward her computer console. "You pick out some appropriately rowdy bar for us."

When Mara returned to the common room a few minutes later, Luke was once more looking out over the city. "So, what did you come up with?" she asked, leaning over to study the screen.

He turned and smiled. "There are several choices there. I was getting kinda hungry, so I pulled up some places that serve food, too."

"I thought you just came from a banquet."

He shrugged his shoulders. "Didn't have much of an appetite then."

She graciously let his comment slide, and began reading names off the screen. Luke spent those moments letting his gaze wander over his 'best friend.' He regarded her snug pants, gossypium-cloth shirt, and trim nerf-hide jacket with more than just 'friendly' admiration. But after his 'soft hands' comment, he wasn't about to say anything.

Mara frowned, looking up at him. "Aren't some of these in the area we traveled through after escaping the palace?"

"I figured the places with the best garbage behind them would serve the best food inside," he explained jokingly.

Mara rolled her eyes.

"What? Aren't I allowed to practice teasing, too?"

Mara's smirk softened. "Anytime, Farmboy. But you'll never keep up with me." She reached over and clicked off the terminal. "Let's try the Ranat Roost. C'mon, we've got to go by your place first."

"My place? Why?"

Mara brushed an imaginary piece of lint off his shoulder. "As spiffy as you look tonight, I think you'd be a tad over-dressed for where we're headed."

Luke glanced down at himself. "Oh. Guess you're right."

They hailed a hovercab and traveled the few kilometers to the apartment he shared with Leia.

"You know," Mara commented as they entered, "I was rather surprised you and Leia moved in here together."

Luke shrugged. "Apartments are at a premium here."

Mara nodded in agreement.

"She's with Han most of the time, anyway," he continued, "or at meetings. And I have a bunk in the Rogue barracks, if she wants some privacy. Besides, it gives us a chance to catch up, when we do happen to be here at the same time."

"Catch up?"

"We compare notes on our lives growing up."

"Wouldn't think there'd be much comparison," Mara muttered, then caught herself. "Sorry, that was thoughtless."

"No," Luke assured her, laughing. "I've come to the conclusion that I'm glad I got the farm life. Can you imagine me training in ballroom dancing or diplomatic etiquette?" He chuckled to himself. "Though I'm sure Leia is thinking she needs to drill it into me, after tonight. Besides," he added with a wink, "she didn't get to race skyhoppers through canyons or shoot womprats."

"All right, Skywalker, you've got me convinced. Tatooine was paradise for you."

"You'll never hear me say that!"

She pushed him toward the bedroom. "Go change clothes. And no Jedi outfits! Or military uniforms!"

"That doesn't leave much," Luke called, heading to his closet.

Mara sighed in mock exasperation. "Maybe I need to pick out something for you," she said, following him in. She gazed at his sparse assortment, spying a satiny dark blue shirt hiding in the back. Pulling it out, she eyed it suspiciously. "I've never seen you wear this."

Luke cleared his throat, grabbing the garment out of her hands and shoving it back where it came from. "It's one of Lando's cast-offs. Said it shrunk or something. I don't know. I've never worn it."

Mara stubbornly pulled it right back out. She narrowed her eyes and waved one hand slowly in front of his face. "You want to wear this shirt," she intoned solemnly.

He gave her an incredulous look, then burst out laughing.

They entered the Ranat Roost tapcafe a short time later. A haze of smoke drifted across the room, and lively music filled the air from a trio of jizz wailers in a far corner. The assorted patrons, most in various stages of intoxication, paid little attention to the newcomers.

As they spied an empty table and made their way across the crowded space to claim it, Luke thought he recognized several of the customers as being from his military base. Suddenly, his hand instinctively flew toward his lightsaber as he was shoved from behind.

"Hey, buddy, watch it!" a raspy voice came from below them. Spinning around, Luke's eyes traveled down to an inebriated Kloperian, now sitting haplessly on the floor.

"Could ya help a fella up?" the short, gray alien said, raising both bloodshot eyes and a limp tentacle toward Luke.

"Looks like you've had enough for the evening, friend," Luke advised him, relaxing and pulling the being to a shaky upright position. As the Kloperian moved back toward the bar, Luke noticed Mara tucking her tiny blaster back into its sleeve holster.

"C'mon, Skywalker, it's time to start our own celebrating." They reached the small round table, and Mara shoved aside the empty containers from its last occupants. Luke activated the holo-menu, and they each punched in their selections.

As the holomenu disappeared, two young girls, barely out of their teens, approached the table.

"Commander? Commander Skywalker?" they exclaimed, giggling in unison.

"Yes?" Luke answered politely, trying to avert his eyes from their overly revealing attire. 'I told you it was him,' he heard the blonde whisper to the brunette. The girls eyed Mara suspiciously, then turned back to the object of their fawning.

"Hmmm, we work in Data Files, over at Liberty Base, and we've seen you come through," the blonde spoke up.

"That's nice," Luke answered noncommittally.

"We, uh, just wanted to introduce ourselves," the brunette continued. "I'm Daxia."

"And I'm Tirzah," her companion added.

"Nice to meet you," Luke murmured. He glanced at Mara out of the corner of his eye. (Would you like me to introduce you to them?) he sent silently.

(Don't you dare!) she shot back.

"If you ever need any files retrieved," Tirzah was saying, brazenly laying one hand on Luke's shoulder, "or anything else...," she batted her long lashes at him, "don't hesitate to look us up."

"We'd be glad to help you out in any way," Daxia purred.

"Uh, thanks," Luke muttered, trying to think of some way to get rid of them.

"Here are our names and home comm numbers, if you need anything after hours," Daxia continued, handing him a pair of small data chits. "Anything at all." Luke took the chits wordlessly, dropping them in his shirt pocket. With exaggerated wiggles, the pair moved back to a group of young people gathered near the band.

Mara rolled her eyes, stifling her laughter. "Get propositioned often, do you?"

Luke gave her a glare, then amusement began trickling into his expression. "Why? Jealous?"

"Of those two? Please!"

Luke was saved from having to retort by the appearance of the waiter droid bringing their order of staga ribs and lomin-ales. They continued their casual banter throughout their meal, each relishing the comfortable feeling of just being together.

All evening, Mara had been tapping her feet to the tunes being belted out by the tapcafe's resident band. "You know, Skywalker, people are dancing over there."

Luke glanced over at the small, crowded dance floor. "Hmm-mmm."

"The music's not bad. Easy to dance to," Mara continued. Can the man not take a hint?

"I suppose. If you like that kind of thing." Luke leaned back in his chair, sipping his drink, his face a mask of boredom.

Mara narrowed her eyes impatiently, resting her elbow on the table and her chin in her hand. "It's a great way to release pent-up tension."

"Guess so. Don't feel any tension right now, myself." Luke swore he heard a low growl coming from his dinner companion. Perhaps it was time to give in. He stood up, extending one hand. "Mara, would you like to dance with me?"

"Someday, Skywalker, you're going to go too far," Mara grumbled as she joined him. They staked out a small spot on the dance floor, near the back wall of the room. A bit awkwardly at first, they held each other and began swaying to the music. Gradually, they relaxed more and more into each other, with Mara laying her head against Luke's shoulder.

"Well, well, well. Whadda we got here?"

Pausing in their dancing, Luke rotated around to the source of the harsh, gravely voice. Standing behind them, flanked by two cohorts, was a tall, rough-looking humanoid. Hands on hips, the man looked down on the couple with a look of contempt filling his dirty, unshaven face.

"So the Jedi's found himself a little Imp whore," the man sneered, eliciting a guttural snicker from one of his sidekicks. "One of Palpatine's own playthings, I hear."

Luke's eyes flashed in anger as he stepped in front of Mara, facing their antagonist.

Their tormentor arrogantly hooked his thumbs in his belt and puffed out his chest. "Hey, doll," he taunted as he eyed Mara lecherously. "Why don't ya try a real man, 'stead of this wimpy little spoon-bender?"

Mara scowled and attempted to confront the ruffian, but Luke blocked her way. He grabbed the man by the front of his shirt and effortlessly pinned him against the wall, feet dangling off the floor. Mara knew Luke was using the Force – the man was easily double his weight.

"You will apologize to the lady," Luke demanded.

"What lady?" the man bit out, eyes darting about in spite of his precarious position. "I don't see no lady."

"Why you miserable..." Luke hesitated, feeling Mara's presence growing more distant, and looked over his shoulder in time to see a flash of red hair exiting through the front entrance. Giving the man one last threatening look, he dropped him to the floor and followed her out into the night.

"Don't you ever do that again." Mara didn't turn as Luke approached her from behind.


Mara jerked around, knocking off the hand that he had barely laid on her shoulder. "Look, Skywalker, I can take care of myself. I don't need some son of a Sith playing protector for me."

"I didn't mean it that way," he protested, flinching at her choice of an insult.

Mara started to retort, then stopped and swirled away from him once more. "I could feel you touch the dark side, Luke," she whispered. He began to object, but she continued, "You scare me sometimes. I've witnessed your father treat underlings just like you treated that bully." She took a deep breath. "What's next? You going to start choking anyone who offends one of us?"

"Mara..." He paused, not knowing what to say.

"I'm going home now." She began to move down the walkway.

"I could walk you home," Luke said hurriedly, instantly knowing it was exactly the wrong thing to say.

She stopped and gave him a cold stare. "You just don't get it, do you? I've slain a hundred beings across the galaxy. I think I can make it back to my apartment safely. I don't need you, Skywalker. Right now, I don't even want you near me." With that, Mara stalked off into the darkness. Luke watched her retreating figure, then dejectedly turned in the direction of his own dwelling.

As Luke entered his apartment some time later, he could feel Leia in her bedroom, sound asleep. He would talk to her in the morning, and attempt to make amends for his behavior at the awards ceremony. He needed to do the same with Mon Mothma. And then there was Mara. How could he ever begin to make things right with her? Luke wasn't even fully convinced his actions weren't in some way justified. And that was the most frightening part of the whole matter. Had he already lost his perspective of how a Jedi should act? It seemed like Mara, who had been taught to despise Jedi, saw the light a lot more clearly than he did.

How could a guy who had no experience with women get into so much trouble with three of them on the same night? With a heavy sigh, Luke began to undress. After tossing his jacket over a chair, he started unbuttoning the blue shirt. He should have worn one of his black shirts, he thought. Dress like a Jedi; act like a Jedi. He shook his head in disapproval at his own excuses. Being Jedi had nothing to do with what kind of clothes you wore; it was who you were inside.

As Luke threw the shirt in the general direction of the laundry receptacle, he heard a faint 'plink, plink.' Bending over, he picked up the two address chits he'd acquired in the tapcafe. He had felt a twinge of jealously from Mara when those two girls flirted with him, he was sure of it. Which brought up a whole other unsettling issue. Just being near her stirred up feelings in him he wasn't sure he was ready to face. Feelings he didn't think were appropriate for 'best friends' — longings and desires he couldn't get out of his head.

Over the last two months, Mara had claimed a place in Luke's thoughts on a constant basis. He couldn't wait to see her pouting face when he came in from patrols. Her blatant honesty was like a breath of fresh air against the military regulations, political manipulating, and hero fawning he constantly found himself surrounded by.

And in all that time, their relationship remained purely platonic. He hadn't lost his desire for her, certainly. He'd just put it on the back heater. They both needed time to cement their friendship first. But lately, he was having more and more trouble not resurrecting the feelings he'd first had for Mara more than two months ago. Had he now lost his chance at a loving relationship?

Luke started to toss the chits into the waste recycler, then paused. Maybe if he did have some experience, he wouldn't be so unsure of himself. No doubt, either one of these girls would be thrilled to come to his aid. Maybe he should... No! He threw the tempting objects into the chute. No. He didn't want his first time to be with some hero groupie he didn't even know. Not his first time, or any time. There was only one person he wanted — the one who didn't want to be near him.

Settling himself into a cross-legged position, he prepared to enter into deep meditation. Perhaps he could meditate away the yearning ache in his body. He wasn't so sure about the ache in his heart.

Mara Jade punched in the code to unlock her door without even thinking about it. The two-kilometer walk from the Ranat Roost to her apartment was undoubtedly the loneliest she had ever taken. Entering her common room, she glanced around at the meager décor, remembering the refined elegance of her former suite in the Imperial Palace. But that life was over, and there was no merit in dwelling on the past. Especially a past as regrettable as hers.

So what was keeping her on Coruscant? Some compulsion to psycho-analyze upstart Jedi?

As Mara crossed the room, a glint of gold on the floor caught her eye. She bent to retrieve Luke's discarded award, and enclosed it in her fist. Even the cold metal conveyed to her his pain and despair.

For as long as she could remember she had been surrounded by the dark side, so its oppressive chill was no stranger to her. She had seen sparks of it in Luke a few times over the past few months, when a stubborn drivebolt refused to come loose, or a persistent holoreporter intruded on his privacy. But he had always quickly smothered the spark, never allowing it to flame to life. But the anger she had felt in him this evening had frightened her. He seemed to have abandoned any effort at self-control. In those few moments, she saw in him not the son, but the father.

Mara stood in front of her transparisteel window, in the same spot she had shared with Luke mere hours ago, not even conscious of the endless stream of lights moving past outside. She clutched the medal to her breastbone, ignoring the prick of the clasp against her palm. Maybe she needed to get away for awhile, travel back out into the galaxy that she knew so well.

Exhaling a breath, Mara tried to formulate a plan. After the Alliance's bombing of the palace, there had been nothing left of her belongings. She was paid a small salary as Rogue Squadron's Supply Distribution Coordinator — enough to rent this apartment. But enough to buy a ship, never. Perhaps she could scrape together sufficient funds for passage on a transport. But where would she go? As far away from Luke Skywalker as her credits would take her?

Mara shut her eyes, refusing to allow any tears to fall. She knew in her heart, she could never run far enough to escape Luke's presence. The connection she felt with him was so much like the link she had with the Emperor, and yet it was exactly the opposite. Both connections had been thrust upon her, heedless of any feelings or needs of her own. With Palpatine, she never considered the possibility that she had a choice. With Luke, she hadn't, until now, thought about wanting any other choice.

Luke had been the perfect gentleman ever since that episode in the underground, when they had come to the brink of making love. At first she was grateful, but lately, twinges of disappointment flitted through her when they parted with only a handshake. And then, tonight, she was the one who wouldn't even offer him a hand.

Time. She needed time to reflect. Time to review in her heart just what her true feelings for Luke Skywalker were.